The 3 best areas to stay in Barcelona
Everybody seems to love Barcelona, and not without reason. It offers so many different things, it's almost too much. Beach. Art. Food. Party. Architecture. Young people, weird languages. You can get lost, but you don't have to.
Here are the 3 best areas to stay in Barcelona:
- Best Neighborhood N° 1 Barri Gòtic
- Best Neighborhood N° 2 El Born
- Best Neighborhood N° 3 Eixample
- OH NO! Maybe not
Barri Gòtic – Medieval, narrow and crowded
Some places never change. For hundreds of years they aren't going anywhere. Because it has always been like that, and nothing new is needed. Then the world around changes, suddenly, in only a few centuries. Now everybody wants to go to where it's like before: where the cobbles are still wet on a summer afternoon after they've been washed in the morning. Where the alleys are so narrow that you smell old walls even before you hear the church bells echoing from them.
Welcome to Barri Gòtic.
The "Gothic Quarter" is part of Barcelona's old town ("Ciutat Vella"). Like in the neighbouring "El Born" you almost feel the medieval walls that surrounded the whole area for centuries. Barri Gòtic is narrow and full of corners, some of them dark. Cars wouldn't get through, even if they were allowed to try.
You will get:
- narrow streets, old walls
- central location
- churches and
- to the beach fast
- more tourists
Since Barcelona wasn't exactly crushing it economically after the Middle Ages, gothic buildings were not replaced by new ones and thereby preserved. Today this makes the quarter appear as if it were frozen in time and thereby a welcome contrast to the annoying "Rambla" and the busy "Plaça de Catalunya". To escape from anyone of them into Barri Gòtic feels like salvation. At least as long as you don't head to one of the sightseeing hotspots right away.
Like for example: the area around "La Catedral", the gothic Cathedral. The place is stressful, touristy and attracts pickpockets that don't seem to be too impressed by god watching their actions.
The central location of Barri Gòtic more than makes up for it: situated between Harbour and Eixample, between Rambla and El Born, it is the perfect area for you to stay if you like short distances. Beach: 5 to 10 minutes. Shopping at "Passeig de Gràcia": nearly the same. And around Plaça Reial there's even nightlife going on.
Alleys so narrow, you will smell the old walls ...
... even before you hear the church bells echoing from them.
Practical tip for Barri Gòtic
Since cars are almost completely banned in the whole area don’t even consider bringing one. Not even taxis get ahead well. So better expect walking to get to your hotel, at least for the last few meters. Be aware of pickpockets around the Cathedral and on Rambla.
El Born – Vibrant, artsy and central
It is not easy to get to the bottom of the El Born Identity. Officially the area does not exist but people seem to know things about it. The name "Born" is written on walls in dark alleys. Stories about the neighbourhood can be found on wikipedia, as long as you speak Catalan.
The good news is: nobody really cares about where El Born starts and ends exactly, or which district it belongs to officially. Everybody in Barcelona knows what and where it is roughly. And people know you can have a good time between the medieval walls of Born without being overrun by tourists.
This neighbourhood seems to combine so many good characteristics of other districts: It is as atmospheric and medieval as Barri Gòtic while giving you space to breath. Like in Eixample you will never have problems to find great restaurants and bars here, but without having to pay Eixample prices. And El Born almost feels as artsy and hip as the upcoming Gràcia neighbourhood – just in central location and near the beach!
You will get:
- a neighbourhood in the heart of Barcelona
- hence: beach in flip flop distance
- Bars and restaurants
- Arts and crafts crowd
- trouble finding the thing on a map
El Born has always been the neighbourhood of craftsmen and merchants. Street names reflect that into modern times as well as all the small shops selling basically everything crafty hands can make. Low rents attracted artists and creatives and made El Born the hip place it is today.
The next years will show if it will stay that way. Cool neighbourhoods with history usually don't stay cheap forever. El Born is in the middle of this process where expats move in and prices go up. Tapas Bars as well as regular ones attract young people that now inhabit the squares at night that featured markets and executions in the good old dark ages.
So the future of El Born remains uncertain, its path to be determined. Your ways, on the other hand, will never be too long if you stay here. 5 to 10 minutes and you end up either at the beach, in Eixample, Barri Gòtic, the zoo or the harbour. Just finding your way back through the narrow alleys might be a challenge.
Neighbourhoods with history and cool people don't stay cheap forever.
El Born starts getting too expensive for it's craftsmen and creatives already
Practical tip for El Born
Since cars are banned in the wide parts of the area better do not bring one. Not even taxis get ahead very well. So better expect to walk to get to your hotel, at least for the last few meters.
Eixample – Architecture, shopping and Gaudí
Imagine we were city planners of the 19th century and Barcelona was bursting at the seams. There were still walls around the narrow and dark parts of the old city. The sea, being there instead of building space to the South, wouldn't make the job easier. It's not unlikely we'd all come up with the same idea: Get rid of the walls, extend the city to the North and call our new Quarter "Extension". Boom.
So far so reasonable. But what they did with the Eixample is so much more than that. The whole area is based on a grid of broad boulevards and streets, often with trees providing protection from the mediterranean sun. The blocks are all the same size: 133 meters of houses with big courtyards in the middle. Where the streets cross, they form octagonal squares instead of normal crossings.
What that means? A lot of light, shining onto spectacular facades. Think about it: such a type of crossing does not create four boring corners but four diagonally placed facades that build a little square.
You will get:
- Broad boulevards, spectacular views
- Flagship stores on shopping streets
- Gaudí buildings
- Enough walking-time to not feel bad about all the tapas
While moving diagonally over the grid at every crossing like a bishop on a chess board, you might have a hard time remembering so much big-city-beauty happening anywhere else. The whole quarter is so generously and well planned, even the traffic flows like it should. It seems like Eixample is the direct antithesis to the medieval Barri Gòtic with it's narrow alleys and old walls.
As boring as "grid system" might sound: in the end the always repeting layout of the blocks really makes the architecture shine. Elegant, paris-like facades alternate with excentric Modernisma buildings. You start getting excited about what the next crossing will look like – or maybe that's just me. But if there were such a thing as architecture porn, I think Eixample would be the setting.
And since splendor goes well with wealth and luxury, all the big brands have their flagship stores here. Especially on Passeig de Gràcia where you will find the most prestigeous hotels and their rooftop bars as well. All that doesn't come for free – Eixample is one of the pricier areas of Barcelona.
Oh, and since I can't talk about Eixample without mentioning Gaudí – some of his master pieces of architecture like Casa Battló, Casa Milà and the overwhelmingly crazy and fantastic Sagrada Familia stand here, getting even more attention in the otherwise predictable grid of streets.
If architecture porn existed, it would have been set in Eixample.
(and have no dialogues)
Practical tip for Eixample
Walking distances can be much longer than they seem first because of the perfectly straight and very wide streets of the Eixample. Apart from that: Getting in line to get into Sagrada Familia makes absolutely no sense because it can take forever and is not necessary. Just buy a ticket online upfront and get in in a certain time frame basically without waiting.
- Avoid Raval. What real estate agents call "promising" or "emerging" you could also call unsafe and unattractive. This applies especially to the western part of the district.
- Don't stay directly at Rambla. This major shopping street is loud, exhausting and the best place to "lose" your cellphone or wallet.
- Not so interesting for visitors: the outer districts of Barcelona. Also, quite surprisingly, the immediate neighbourhood of Sagrada Familia is not that special and can get a bit annoying due to the crowds of tourists.
How is Barcelona structured?
- Barcelona is one of the few major European cities located at the sea. Beaches, seafront promenades and ports play a big role in the lives of the 1.6 million people living here.
- The Old Town ("Ciutat Vella") is located in the center at the sea. From there, a couple of big and perfectly straight streets lead into almost all directions.
- The two most important streets for visitors are "Rambla" and "Passeig de Gràcia" – popular both for shopping and walking. They start at sea level, lead uphill through the Old Town right into the famous "Eixample" quarter.
- The big arterial roads are connected by the diagonally running "Avinguda Diagonal" that spans over 7 miles from one end of Barcelona to the other end and thereby divides the city in two parts.
- North of the "Diagonal" are the areas of Barcelona that are usually not as interesting for visitors. Apart from Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell, the tourist and expat life happens in the southern part of the city.
How do I get from the airport to the city of Barcelona?
Barcelona has only one airport, so there is no confusion about where you land. If you don't want to spend 25-30 € for a taxi to the inner city, there are some options:
- Recently, the airport got connected to the Metro, with one station for each of the two terminals. A couple of Euros will get you into the city. The advantage: you are already in the Metro system and can get quickly to almost anywhere in Barcelona.
- If you need to get directly into the city center (Plaça d'Espanya or Plaça de Catalunya), take the Aerobus. It has intervalls of 5-10 minutes, a station at both airport terminals and gets you to the inner city pretty much without stopping. Tickets cost 6 €, you buy them when you board the bus or upfront online.
- I wouldn't recommend other busses or trains. They are either far away from the terminals, have long intervals and you won't save much money.
How safe is Barcelona?
It might surprise you if you got your image from other mediterranean cities, but Barcelona is actually one of the safest ones in Europe. Serious crime and violence are very rare. Pickpocketing in some touristy areas on the other hand is a real thing here and happens quite frequently (La Rambla, parts of Raval, at train and metro stations). In general the streets of Barcelona feel safe even late at night. That might be connected to the fact that in Spain people don't usually drink until they get kicked out of the bar.
What are typical rookie mistakes to avoid in Barcelona?
- Thinking that La Rambla is the cultural centre of Barcelona and that you should spend a lot of time there. The opposite is true. A short visit is enough to realize that this street is crowded, exhausting and annoyingly touristic.
- Assuming that dinner time in Barcelona is from 6 to 10 p.m., as it is the case in most other European cities. Barcelona is different there. Most people go out for dinner very late. Clubs hardly ever open before midnight.
- Considering Barcelona as typically Spanish. Even though it is probably the most famous Spanish city, Barcelona is deeply Catalan and thus culturally largely independent.
- Queuing instead of buying tickets online. Especially at top sights like the Sagrada Familia you can waste a lot of valuable travel time by just queuing for a ticket. That often takes hours. If you got your tickets online in advance, you can get in immediately.
How do I get around best in Barcelona?
- Walk as much as possible in Barcelona. The architecture and the boulevards are well worth it.
- But apart from that, and especially during summer, the airconditioned Metro is a good way to get around. It reaches most parts of the city and is quite inexpensive (around 2 Euros per ride and even less if you take a block of 10 tickets).
- Taxis are fairly inexpensive as well compared to other European cities. The number you see on the display indicates the price category on which the taxi is currently operating. 1 is the cheapest, 3 the most expensive.
- Since it is sometimes (especially on weekends) not easy to get a taxi right away, you could also think about using the app Free Now (former MyTaxi app). Uber and the car sharing service ShareNow do not operate in Barcelona at the moment.
What are the opening hours in Barcelona?
The opening hours of shops and restaurants in Barcelona are clearly mediterranean: shops rarely open before 10am, but they will stay opened until 9pm. Many shops close for two hours somewhen between 1 and 5pm. The majority of shops are open for business on saturdays but close on sundays.
Restaurants often stay closed on mondays. To get dinner around midnight usually is no problem on the other hand.
What's the best time to travel to Barcelona?
- November to March: If you want to see real off-season Barcelona, those are your months. The weather is mild with little rain, very few tourists compared to the summer months and thereby low prices.
- April to June: Sweet spot number 1. It is warm and sunny already with okay amounts of rain. Not too many tourists yet and thereby lower prices in general. Swimming in the sea might still be a bit chilly though.
- July and August: Maybe not the best time to visit Barcelona. Why? The city is full of tourists with many locals gone. As a consequence some of the better restaurants are closed. It's usually very hot, with rain from time to time. Prices are high.
- September and October: Sweet spot number 2. Still warm but not crazy hot anymore. It can rain quite a bit though during fall. Sea water temperatures are still high, but less tourists roam around in the city.
What are faux pas to avoid in Barcelona?
- Considering or calling citizens of Barcelona simply Spanish. Catalans have a very strong and independent identity.
- Calling the city "Barca" - this is the name of the football team only.
- Telling citizens of Barcelona how much you like Madrid.
How is tipping handled in Barcelona?
In Barcelona you can tip if you were particularly satisfied with the service provided, but you don't have to. At least it is not expected and also the local people hardly do it. In restaurants, 5-10% is enough for excellent service if you really want to tip, in taxis you just round up to minimize the change.